“The Martian” Soars

Eric Anderson, A&E Writer

“I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet,” says Mark Watney, the lead character in the Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” which is based on the book of the same title by Andy Weir.

Set in a near-future era where manned missions to Mars are being conducted by NASA, the book centers on the trials and tribulations Watney endures after being stranded on Mars by his crew, who mistakenly thought he had died when he was struck by debris during an evacuation. In order to survive, he must learn to grow food for himself and establish contact with Earth, relying on his skills as a botanist and an engineer. Meanwhile, on Earth, NASA discovers evidence of his survival and frantically charts a course of action to assist him.

The film hews very closely to the plot of the novel, streamlining only when necessary and keeping consistent with the characterizations of the text. Of course Watney now records his messages through video logs instead of written logs, but given the visual format shift, that’s hardly an issue worth griping over.

Matt Damon (“The Bourne Identity”) excellently portrays Watney, spending the majority of the film acting opposite no one. Damon handles his one-man show with ease, bringing to life Watney’s constant sarcasm and gallows humor, as well as his optimism. Even in the most dire of circumstances, Watney can find the drive to keep pushing and is always able to find a joke to keep himself–and the audience–from feeling defeated. After the unrelenting bleakness of recent survival films such as “Everest,” the optimism of “The Martian” is a welcome change.

This outlook also helps differentiate “The Martian” from recent space survival thriller “Gravity,” as well as Christopher Nolan’s space adventure “Interstellar” (which, incidentally, also featured Matt Damon stranded on a planet by himself). While all three films are defined by themes of optimism and perseverance, as well as realistic treatment of extraterrestrial environments (Mars, inner Earth orbit, and black holes, respectively), Watney’s easygoing yet determined characterization and relentless good attitude differentiates him from the more emotionally volatile leads of “Gravity” and “Interstellar” (to say nothing of Damon’s character from the latter).

Despite its positive attitude, “The Martian” never lets the audience forget just how perilous Watney’s situation is. When the astronaut first awakens after being abandoned, the audience is treated to a harrowing sequence where he must return to the base and treat his own (pretty nasty) injuries. From there, Watney lays out his circumstances, which include the risk of suffocation, thirst, and starvation, as well as “kind of implod[ing]” if the base breaches. His skills are put to the ultimate test and not all of his endeavors culminate in success. Watney may be a laid-back guy, but he can’t survive on Mars lying down–and he doesn’t plan on dying there.

The remainder of the cast is relatively familiar, with actors such as Jessica Chastain (“Interstellar”), Kate Mara (“127 Hours”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”), and Jeff Daniels (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), who all give strong performances. On Earth, the drama remains high, with all sorts of scrambling to try to keep Mark alive, and the decision still has to be made as to whether or not to inform the returning astronauts of their colleague’s survival. No villain exists in “The Martian” except time and the elements, and, even though much of the film focuses on Watney alone, the story ultimately isn’t just about him; it’s a reminder of the strength of the human spirit, the willingness of others to come together to help just one person, the importance of scientific skill and ingenuity, and, perhaps most importantly, the strong impact having a music library of nothing but 70s disco has on a human being.

“The Martian” is a great adaptation of a great source material, and has no difficulty portraying Mark Watney as he faces dozens of problems in his daily struggle to survive. The film is highly recommended for all audiences.